Before fashion existed, humans wore clothes to prevent themselves from freezing to death on cold winter nights, burning to death in the hot sun, or being slashed to death as they crawled through the undergrowth in search of the next meal. Even when fashion, branding, and commercialism spawned the first wave of trendy high-tech fabrics like Gore-Tex and Spandex thousands of years later, nothing much changed: They were still designed to keep us drier, warmer, cooler, or safer, and still a far cry from what most of us would consider smart, tech-infused clothing.
Then came the smartphone. Its connectivity, millions of apps, and eventual ubiquity meant that suddenly, everyone had a handheld computer that could connect to, monitor, and control other things. It changed the way companies thought about smart products. Shoes with pedometers built in to the heel were suddenly possible. T-shirts could monitor our heartbeat. Someone even thought messenger bags with smartphone-connected speakers were a good idea.
Now, as we head toward 2017, we’re ready for the real deal. Nanotechnology has made fibers smarter. Conductive yarns mean the fabrics that we wear and sit and sleep on can suddenly communicate with our devices. And 3D printing could change the way we think about, produce, wear, and even buy clothes.
It took us a long time to get here. A decade ago, clothing and fashion brands were laser-focused on threads to keep us cooler, or less sweaty. The emerging world of mobile gadgetry was an irritating distraction, so all we got were a few nods in its direction, namely clothes with many, many pockets.
Witness the ScotteVest Revolution Plus, a jacket released in 2010 with a whopping 26 pockets. In this bewildering array of storage spaces, you can lose a tablet, two smartphones, a camera, a pair of headphones, and all manner of other everyday items, including, we’re sure, small pets. Clothes got away with merely storing high-tech items, rather than actually being high-tech.
It was the world of competitive sports that showed us technology being integrated into clothes properly for the first time. Performance-enhancing clothing for the world’s greatest athletes was being developed, using the same materials and fibers that would eventually be found in sportswear we’d buy in the shops .
Speedo’s LZR Racer kneecap-to-navel swimsuit, for instance, trapped air inside for buoyancy, and cut down on drag in the water, resulting in more speed. But these garments suffered at the hands of their own success. The Olympic governing body banned the use of swimsuits made of non-textile materials in 2010, after world records were smashed by swimmers clad in suits made from polyurethane or neoprene, such as the Racer. Swimmer Michael Phelps won seven of his eight events at the 2008 Beijing Olympics wearing one.
Not that it really mattered. The snowball had already started rolling down the mountain, and development wasn’t going to stop just because of some silly rule. Speedo came up with a replacement to the LZR using a material called Fastskin3, created with the help of nanotechnologists, aircraft engineers, and hydrodynamicists. It compressed the body three times more than the LZR, but only in the right places, making it more streamlined. Manufacturing it was so technically complex that in 2012, there were only six machines that could make it — and Speedo owned them all.